Collapsing latitude and navigating longitude

Mariners have known since ancient times how to confidently find their latitude by reading the stars and a compass.  However, without a map and sight of land, accurately navigating longitude took until the nineteenth century.

Despite being able to travel long distances for centuries and communicate around the globe nearly instantly for decades, it is only now that the need for physical proximity to work is being broken down.  Slowly maturing technology has been pushed over the line of usability by the COVID pandemic.  But, like early mariners, the way we use today’s technology is only useful for navigating latitude and not longitude.  While we can traverse distance, we’ve not flattened the Earth.  Even though we can, we don’t choose to work through the night.

Just as we have learnt to work remotely across latitudes, we need to learn to move virtually across longitudes.  Before the pandemic, my personal travel was unsustainable.  I was flying around the world for short meetings.  I wrote “Today’s travel through tomorrow’s eyes” in 2019 and thought “tomorrow” would be in the 2030s, little did I realise that I would be reviewing those same words in just a few short years!

As we learn to sustain our reduced use of airlines, we need to be much more deliberate about virtual longitudinal travel across time zones.  Today, when someone is invited to a meeting in the middle of the night, they groan about either staying up late or getting up in the night and whether they will manage enough sleep.  People are even flying around the world simply to be in the right time zone!

The better answer is to deliberately adjust to the new time zone by undertaking a “virtual flight”, taking time off work beforehand just as we would going to the airport.  We also need to book out the next day and be prepared to do a “virtual flight” home.  The time lost is still less disruptive than the combination of airports and travel.  Some of the best virtual travellers are even allocating time to movies and other in-flight entertainment!

At the turn of the century, many governments started looking to what was then known as telework (now called virtual work) as a way of reducing the load on groaning city infrastructure.  As we recover from the pandemic, those same governments are worried about a lack of city workers to drive the profits of cafes, restaurants and commercial real estate.

While the concern about disruption to cities is understandable, perhaps governments should be more focused on the new opportunities that are emerging as we look beyond the pandemic.  Few businesses have evolved their business strategy to really move past flexible work and letting their people work from anywhere.  It is time that we all start thinking about customers, workers and the virtual services supply chain in terms of latitude and longitude.  Those businesses that do the most within a narrow longitudinal band, regardless of the latitudes, will do the best.

I recently argued that to enable business across borders we need two of commercial, political or personal alignment.  The last of these, personal alignment, requires strong involvement across businesses in activities such as board governance, executive leadership and professional development.  These activities all work easily in our new virtualised world when we focus our attention on aligned time zones.

Governments who deliberately target export industries around education, telehealth, financial, technology and other services to markets within their immediate longitudinal lines will have natural advantages over those that are trying to reach over the East and West horizons.  That means making it easy to share leadership and governance roles, provide services remotely and actively support complementary tax and regulatory regimes.

Businesses and industry groups who look for these opportunities today will shape the agenda into tomorrow.  Trade corridors and supply chains negotiated through the aligned longitudinal lines will naturally evolve to include more live interaction as participants easily collaborate in real time.  In our new world, personal career ambitions will coincide with business leadership and governance needs further reinforcing business relationships.

Rather than rely on a few trade delegations, virtual events can be scheduled weekly while professional training that was once purely local can span countries.  All of this will be enabled and encouraged by boards who will find it easy to look further afield for members bringing greater breadth of perspective.

The future of business belongs to those prepared to look first to their North and South for partnerships, customers and staff.

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